I stood under an oak tree in the cemetary, the smoke of my cigar rising up all around me. Everyone else had left, going to the dinner at my parents, or to go about their Saturday. But I stayed, with my brother, smoking one last cigar with him. I looked over at his headstone. Twenty-two, top of his class. Shot in cold blood, and no one had any idea why or who did it. I exhaled, and in a normal December, I would have seen my breath. But this was an unseasonably — and unreasonably — hot December. It was rarely ever cold in Escagoula, a small town just outside Hattiesburg, at this time of year, at least not real cold, but it damn sure wasn’t supposed to be this hot.
Twenty-two years old. I just couldn’t get past it, that someone would have shot my little brother. When I heard, I took two weeks off down at the paper. Him and his roommate both, shot in their dorm, no witnesses, no motive, no nothing. The roommate’s funeral was the following Tuesday, and I intended to be there, too. I wanted answers, even if I didn’t expect them. I had to hope. My kid brother liked everybody, and everybody liked my kid brother. He didn’t go through school like I had, pretending to be some loner, cooler than the crowd, sitting in the back of the class and brooding.
We were separated by five years, and now six feet of dirt and two inches of pine. It made no sense. Working for a newspaper, I saw all sorts of stupid things, tragedies, senseless violence. I generally kept to writing editorials and local stuff, like the plays the college put on, or special events. Every Sunday, I wrote about our little town, our little county. Every Saturday, Johnny previewed the column, giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down. My kid brother, my biggest critic, my biggest fan. It just made no sense.
So while everyone else listened to the preacher say his words, kind words, I imagine, as Johnny was in church any time the doors opened, I couldn’t help but look around at the faces. Most of them, outside family, were just college kids. Fresh faces, facing their first tragedy, their first lost, most of them seeing how cruel the world could be for the first time. Losing someone to murder was a lot different than old age. Anyone with a big family like ours got used to the passing of uncles, aunts, and other extended family. It was almost formulaic, someone gets old, gets sick, goes to the hospital, fights it as long as they can and dies. Gave us all a chance to prepare ourselves. But nobody prepared for this sort of tragedy.
A couple of his friends I recognized, a couple I didn’t. I recognized his English teacher, of course, since we went to school together. I recognized her husband, too, since he dropped out of school with us. She was one of those girls that was too pretty, you know? The type that didn’t realize it. It was hard remembering her name at first, ’til I remembered Johnny talking about her. Zoe. Zoe Prior, with the bright blue eyes and shaggy husband. Most of his teachers, though, came from the science, math, and computer departments. I didn’t recognize any of them. Of the students, the ones I didn’t know, I made a point of meeting.
Most of them didn’t stand out. They were unimpressive. Stupid jocks, little nerds. Even a few goths braved the sun and heat to show up, all decked out in black — like they needed an excuse — and runny mascara as they cried, boy or girl. The students that really caught my eye, of course, were the cute ones. I knew them both before they introduced themselves. Johnny always talked about these two girls. Jennifer, the raven-haired girl with the flawless face and deep sea blue eyes, and Heather, the rare redhead with no freckles, and sky blue eyes. If you’re seeing a trend there, it’s because Johnny loved those blue eyes. I don’t think he ever liked a green or brown eyed girl.
Myself, I didn’t much care what color her eyes were, as long as they looked good when she looked up at me with my dick in her mouth. But Johnny inherited our father’s romanticism. I didn’t. He wanted a nice a girl, a girl to settle down with. I wanted a girl who fucked on the first date. Wasn’t hard to find when you came from my family. Dad, the mayor, uncle, the police chief. Another uncle was the county sheriff. Yeah, the only name that went further than Cavanaugh in our town was Donnelly. One side was politics, one side was business. Well, Donnelly and Boatman, but Donnelly was winning the money race and had been since before I was born.
I finished my cigar and flicked the butt into the dirt under the oak, stomping it out. When I heard thunder rumbling in the distance, I hot footed it back to my car. I lived in a shit apartment not far from my job, but my car was my pride and joy. A 1976 orange Trans Am, complete with the black and gold bird on the hood. Standard, of course, but if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t appreciate the car in the first place.
I pulled into the parking lot at a local coffee shop. Best coffee in town — guess who owned it? Donnelly. Donnelly’s coffee. Thank God the man decided not to call it a Coffee Emporium. Damn I hate places called Emporium’s. Since I liked their coffee, and pointed that out in my columns and local culture write ups, I always drank for free. Seedy romance novels and mysteries always pit the rich families against each other, but that just isn’t how it works in my world. We always get along, because the old rich people like to compete on how rich they are, the rich kids like each other because all the poor kids resent us, and those of us in the middle just sort of get used to the company.
Plus, who else are our parents going to play golf with? The day manager at McDonald’s?
I placed my order and took a nice window seat, looking out at the sky. The storm coming looked angry, like the weather was as pissed about the heat as everyone else. That was fine by me, and I hoped the rain would bring a little relief. Unfortunately, it was more likely to bring mosquitoes and power outs. It never made sense to me why power lines that got knocked down just got put back up — put the damn things in the ground, and we’ll all be better off. It’s too damn hot down here for power outs.
If I could have a patent on anything, after living my life in the south, the air conditioner is the thing I’d pick. You can take most things away from people, but when you take their air conditioning in the summer, they’ll get about ready to kill you. And we have lots of guns down here. Something I was going to find all about now that Johnny died. I almost immediately went to buy a pistol for myself and get a carry permit. My father had all sorts of guns, and I’d grown up shooting them, but this was a small town. No real violence. Even my brother’s death took place outside of town.
My cell phone began to vibrate in my pocket.